Libertarianism & foreign policy: A reply to Randy Barnett

By Ilana Mercer

Professor Randy E. Barnett regularly confronts libertarianism’s holy men and its humbugs. Never one to swell the chorus, Barnett has now challenged libertarians preoccupied with foreign policy to explain how libertarian theory is at all relevant to the subject.

“Because libertarianism is essentially a philosophy of individual rights,” Barnett doubts that “it says much about what policies either individuals or collective institutions ought to pursue other than that they should not violate the rights of individuals in pursuing them.”

Strictly speaking, Barnett has a point. Libertarian philosophy doesn’t specify what constitutes good foreign policy. For instance, a burgeoning breed of libertarians demands the United States adopt moral relativism and be as well-disposed toward the despotic Muslim world as it is toward democratic Israel. Barnett would be right to say that, while some may think such neutrality warranted, it most certainly does not follow from libertarianism.

Nonetheless, since it is a political philosophy concerned with the justified use of force (based on property rights and not morality), libertarianism offers an organizing first principle from which clear – if broad – policy prescriptions can be derived.

This first principle – the axiom of non-aggression – stipulates that it ought to be legal for adults to do whatever they please provided they do not aggress against people or their property. The libertarian prohibition against unprovoked aggression follows from the individual’s inalienable rights to his life, his liberty, and his property. For how are inalienable rights to be preserved unless the initiation of violence is verboten?

Therefore, the answer to Barnett’s question is this. Inasmuch as foreign policy subsumes the prosecution of war and war is an act of force, it is the proper object of libertarian adjudication – the question of force exists in the interstices of foreign policy. Libertarianism can thus advance foreign policy guidelines that are logically deduced from the axiomatic injunction against unprovoked aggression.

Barnett also wants to know why some libertarians believe defensive war flows from libertarian principles. I always thought that Just War followed logically from the right of self-defense, but Barnett suggests that libertarians, in all likelihood, conflate the two because they mistakenly “equate governments or states [collectives] with individuals” (and only the latter can have rights).

Perhaps light can be shed on this question by an examination of the opposite proposition, held by many anarchist libertarians. They acknowledge only begrudgingly the prerogative of waging a defensive war. To paraphrase myself in “Libertarian Wrangling,” because the state is at the helm, anarchists – under the pretense of ideological purity, and at the risk of evincing intellectual sloth – prefer, if anything, to avoid addressing substantive issues. In fact, after Sept. 11, quite a few ruled out a defensive response by insisting that “The [only] proper authority to exercise a right of self-defense against an aggressor is the individual whose rights have been violated, or a designated agent.” (Tell that to the 3,000 victims!)

However charitably one interprets this obscurantism, in reality it means but one thing: the aggressor has all the rights because he places himself outside the law – natural and positive, national and international. His victims, being law-abiders, have no rights, because their only recourse to justice is through the state. (And a right that cannot be defended is not a right!)

In this context, I observed another logical error anarchists make in their refusal to deal with the reality of the state:

From the fact that many libertarians believe … that the state has no legitimacy, [they] arrive at the position that anything the state does is illegitimate … Consider the murderer who, while fleeing the law, happens on a scene of a rape, [and] saves the woman … Is this good deed illegitimate because a murderer has performed it?

To my delight, Barnett makes the very same observation (vicarious vindication is always welcome from a person of his intellectual stature), the logical complement of which is that, considerations of legitimacy notwithstanding, when states or international institutions uphold or defend natural rights, their actions are not unjust.

From this perspective, Barnett, who is not through constructing his libertarian obstacle course, poses a provocative question: Surely an American soldier has not violated libertarian principles if he “goes to the aid of innocent civilians in Somalia, the Sudan, or Iraq”?

In “The Moral Foundations of Modern Libertarianism,” Barnett supplies the analytical tools to rule illegal in libertarian law at least some such foreign-policy overreach. To better distinguish “right action from wrong,” he recommends buttressing natural rights with a consequentialist analysis. Applied to “Mess-opotamia,” one would have to agree that, as predicted well in advance, we’ve paid and will continue to pay staggering costs in blood and treasure. Other than turning a rogue state into a chaotic one, what have we to show for this alleged humanitarian investment?

As useful as Barnett’s natural-rights theory and utilitarianism are, the libertarian non-aggression axiom is indisputably the best tool to distinguish “right action from wrong.” Walter Block offers a quotidian demonstration of this libertarian basic:

You don’t have to wait until I actually punch you in the nose to take violent action against me. You don’t even have to wait until my fist is within a yard of you, moving in your direction. However, if you haul off and punch me in the nose in a preemptive strike, on the ground that I might punch you in the future, then you are an aggressor.

Clearly, even “libertarianism qua libertarianism” (as Barnett puts it) says more than enough about distinguishing offense from defense – at home and abroad.